By Sue Baker
The inventor who changed music and the guitar player who had a room full of music awards wore hearing aids. Legendary musician Les Paul spent his whole life looking for the perfect sound. Ironically, for a good portion of his life he had to pursue his passion for sound while wearing hearing aids.
Les’s hearing loss started in 1969 when a friend playfully hit him over his right ear, causing his eardrum to break. Surgery to repair the damage had its own complications and Les was left with compromised hearing. A few years later another friend did the same thing to Les’s other ear with the same devastating results.
Les disliked how his initial hearing aids made voices sound “tinny” and higher pitched than normal and began to look for a solution. He explored options with numerous audio and hearing aid companies. In the mid-1990s Les connected with Marty Garcia who over time became his go-to audio friend, helping to improve his hearing aids.
The founder of audio and earphone company Future Sonics, Marty created the customized Ear Monitors brand to help entertainers reduce vocal and hearing fatigue. Les tried Ear Monitors during performances and said the devices’ special transducers took his hearing back 35-plus years.
Each Monday night Les performed two sets at New York City’s Iridium Jazz Club. For two hours before the first performance, he did a sound check, analyzing every component. Les had the settings on all the sound equipment photographed so that each week he could tinker with them and study the effect of his changes.
After the shows, Les wanted to be available to sign autographs and meet his audience. To his frustration, he found that it took him too long to change from his onstage Ear Monitors to his “regular” hearing aids. Many fans left before Les could connect with them. Marty’s response was to create a hearing enhancer that Les could wear while performing as well as for everyday use.
Les often joked about his hearing aids. If a battery went out while he was performing, Les would tell his audience not to get their hearing aids at a hardware store. He and Marty also understood that people hear not just with their ears, but with their brains. Together they created a way for the man who chased sound to be able to continue to enjoy and perform it.
Sue Baker is the program director for the Les Paul Foundation, and thanks Marty Garcia, Christopher Lentz, and Arlene Palmer for help with this article. For more, see lespaulfoundation.org. Hearing Health Foundation is grateful to the Les Paul Foundation for its commitment to funding tinnitus research through HHF’s Emerging Research Grants program.